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No Payne, no gain

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Matt Slater | 16:35 UK time, Wednesday, 8 June 2011

It happened almost four years ago but the memories still make me shudder. Moments earlier I had been nervous but excited about what I was going to do. And then it (the worst thing to happen to me since my Maths A-Level) happened and the assault on my self-esteem began.

My goggles had broken, you see, and I was a minute away from trying to swim almost a mile through a post-industrial soup in London's Docklands. The subsequent 40km ride and 10km run seemed as relevant to me right then as the spike a beheaded man's noggin would end up on centuries ago. So why, as my wife has reasonably asked, do it again?

Good question that, one I'm struggling to give a better answer to than the adolescent efforts I've come up with so far. Mrs Slater knows the Serpentine is "there" but doesn't understand what this has to do with her summer. I can only assume George and Ruth Mallory didn't talk much.

All this, of course, is just a long-winded way of saying I am doing the Hyde Park Triathlon on 7 August and, as with my efforts in 2007, will attempt to share some top tips (not mine) and must avoids (all mine) on how to prepare for one of Britain's fastest growing sports.

But, in keeping with my belief that when lost you should never retrace your steps, I am going to do things differently this time. And, despite the evidence of the first 250 words, I want these blogs to be less about me and more about the expert advice. Let's get cracking.

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First up, the swim and my inaugural expert, Britain's open water world champion Keri-Anne Payne.

The big splash is triathlon's briefest (if you do it even vaguely right), shortest and weirdest discipline. It is also, for most amateurs, the most intimidating.

Why? Well, it's a bit like everybody in the pool jumping into your lane at the same time and kicking you in the head. Then they turn the lights out.

So here's the first tip: man up.

And my second piece of advice is don't be proud, get a lesson.

I met Keri-Anne at Hampstead Heath's infamously unheated Parliament Hill Lido on just about the only cold day we've had for weeks. She had just come back from a successful start to her open water season in Israel and I am very skinny, so we were both struggling with the 15-degree water temperature.

Luckily, and this is the kindest break the sport's gods have bequeathed, you can wear a wetsuit in triathlon. Here's the third tip: get one that fits properly, which means it should barely fit at all. You do not have to buy one, though, as they can be rented for the season, much like a fisherman's cottage or Victorian bathing hut.

Even with the neoprene cocoon on, I was still cold so Keri-Anne suggested I dive in, get out and then dive in again. This gives your body a chance to acclimatise and it worked a treat.

This is when things get a bit more technical and the following nuggets of advice might only apply to lazy swimmers like me who like to paddle along serenely without doing much work.

My hand was entering the water with my wrist rotated 90 degrees (thumb pointing down). This meant I was not making much splash, which is good, but I was slicing through the water at the start of my stroke, which is bad. As Keri-Anne pointed out, you've actually got to pull some water to go forwards, an excellent fourth suggestion.

The next three tips are related to that and should be of use to almost every occasional freestyler. Slow down, keep a high elbow underwater (think about it, it makes sense) and finish your strokes properly - brushing your thumb against the bottom of your trunks is a good drill to improve this.

When I walked along the poolside as Keri-Anne swam a few lengths for our TV piece, I couldn't believe how slowly she was turning her arms over and yet how quickly she was slipping through the water. Less is more.

Swimming, like driving a golf ball, making fresh pasta or a plastering a ceiling, is all about technique. Get your stroke sorted and the buoyancy of the wetsuit and adrenaline should do the rest come race day.

The next two pointers Keri-Anne passed on are to do with the actual challenge of training, because let's face it, unlike cycling or running, there is not much to look at when swimming and there's only so much thinking time I need before I start to bore myself.

So train with a friend, group of friends or perhaps even join a club. And mix things up a bit. There is nothing wrong with bashing out 40 lengths of the pool if you've only got 30 minutes away from the desk but next time do an interval session to really raise your heartbeat and throw in a few drills to hone that stroke.

And finally, whether you are swimming 750m for a sprint or 2.4 miles for an Ironman, it is very important that you swim as close to that distance as possible and not a fraction more. So swim straight.

Keri-Anne is fortunate in this regard in that she grew up swimming without goggles and is therefore good at keeping her head down without meandering. But when she does pop her head up to "sight" where she is going she does not do it like a meerkat. She just takes a sneaky peak forward before rolling her head to the side to breathe. Nice and smooth.

I think that's more than enough swim thoughts to clutter your heads with, the only thing to add is if you haven't started training for a triathlon this summer, get on with it.

In terms of the next blog in this series, I am going to surprise absolutely nobody by finding a decent cyclist to talk to. Can't promise it will be another world champion but I will try. After that, it will be a runner and then I'll finish with an actual triathlete to talk us through the sport's "fourth discipline", the transition.

And with that I'm off to practise my high elbow.

As well as my blogs, you can follow me when I'm out and about at


  • Comment number 1.

    Nice to see some coverage of open swimming. Am just about to do my first 2 miler at Alton Water on Saturday. Having only done one 1 mile open swim, your tips will be put into full affect, especiaslly about finishing the stroke. So thanks for the tips and look forward to seeing your follow ups. Good luck.

  • Comment number 2.

    Not only is Kerri Anne Payne an outstanding swimmer she is also a bit of a stunner.

  • Comment number 3.

    enjoyed reading a blog about something different, good article! I live in North Wales, and there was a big triathlon here a few weeks ago, the Snowdonia Slateman. This little series might even inspire me to give it a go next year...

  • Comment number 4.

    Did my first set of swim intervals yesterday to attempt to build my pace before my seasons opener in 8 weeks time. Wow it was hard work! Forgot how much intervals take out of you and i only did my last set of brick (bike/run) intervals 2 weeks ago! Will follow the rest of your blogs. Should make some interesting reading

  • Comment number 5.

    I really enjoyed the piece. I might plug Richard Stannard's open water swimming lessons to those living in the South East and embarking on triathlon. (He is a former British Triathlon Champion).

  • Comment number 6.

    Corpus9 - please send my regards to Richard Stannard. I interviewed him at a London Tri training sesh in 2007 and he taught me how to change an inner tube with no tyre levers. One of the most useful lessons I've ever been given in my life.

  • Comment number 7.

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  • Comment number 8.

    So, no television coverage of this week's National Swimming Championships? Nothing in the calendar for the World Championships next month? I take it that the BBC's televisual commitment to Olympic Sports doesn't start until 2012, if the swimming coverage is anything to go by. Given this is one of our biggest chances for medals, wouldn't it be good to have a highlights programme on Grandstand, at least?


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